Stuck in a dreaded weight loss plateau? Nope, it's not in your head: Weight loss really is harder today than it was just a few decades ago, according to new research.
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Stuck in a dreaded weight loss plateau? Nope, it's not in your head: Weight loss really is harder today than it was just a few decades ago, according to new research.

Now, I’m usually not an “I told you so” kind of person, but the study, published in the journal Obesity Research & Clinical Practice, draws a conclusion I’ve been preaching for quite some time that not all experts agree with—weight loss is a whole lot more complicated than calories in versus calories out.

To reach their findings, York University researchers looked at the dietary data of more than 35,000 Americans between 1971 and 2008, and the exercise data of nearly 15,000 people between 1988 and 2006 (the only years that info was available), and found that today's 25-year-olds have to eat less and exercise more than young people in the 70s and 80s to achieve the same body mass index.

The investigators used mathematical models to show that in 2006, if a given person ate the same number of calories, consumed the same proportion of macro-nutrients (like protein and carbohydrates), and exercised the same as a counterpart in 1988, they would still weigh about 10% more.

How can this be? Well, the researchers pointed to many of the things I’ve talked about here as possibilities, like the amount of environmental chemicals and artificial sweeteners in our food supply. These things may affect the way your body recognizes, uses, or stores calories. It's also true that Americans may be more stressed and sleep-deprived today, two things that have also been shown to affect appetite and in turn, weight gain.

The good news (aside from the fact that your frustration is now completely validated) is there are still ways to outsmart these metabolism-busting menaces. Here are five key factors the study’s authors identified, and tips for circumventing their potential impact on your waistline.

Cut your exposure to these chemicals

Several studies have now shown that exposure to certain industrial compounds called "endocrine-disrupting chemicals" can impact your weight, primarily due to their effect on hormones. For example, a 2012 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that higher body levels of bisphenol A (BPA), a substance found in many packaged and canned foods, was tied to higher rates of obesity in children and teens.

Other endocrine-disrupting chemicals run the gamut from pesticides, fragrances, and flame retardants, and they are found in many everyday products like detergent, furniture, electronics, food, and plastics.

Tips: While you can’t completely avoid these chemicals, you can reduce your exposure. Two simple ways are to buy more fresh foods and all-natural products, and spend more time outside in fresh air.

Set some specific goals, then measure and track them. For example, if you typically eat a packaged snack in the afternoon, trade it for a piece of fresh fruit and a golf ball sized portion of nuts (purchased in bulk, and stored in a BPA-free container). Carve out 15 minutes or more each day to walk outside, without talking, texting, or scrolling Facebook.

Get help if your meds are making you gain

Scientists point out that since the ‘70s and ‘80s there’s been a sharp rise in the use of medications like Prozac. And antidepressants, now one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., have been linked to weight gain.

Tips: Never stop taking a drug that’s been prescribed by your doctor without discussing it with him or her, but do discuss the issue of weight gain if you're experiencing it as a side effect. Ask for a referral to a dietitian/nutritionist, or find out if your health insurance covers fitness center fees. Some plans allow a certain dollar amount, sometimes $200 per person per year, as reimbursement for membership dues.

Feed your gut microbes

In one of the most fascinating new areas of nutrition research scientists have found that the type, amount, and balance of microbes in your digestive tract is related to a number of bodily processes, including appetite regulation, and inflammation.

In one new study, researchers found a link between a healthy balance of gut bacteria to not only weight and body fat, but also good cholesterol levels.

A change in the makeup of gut microbes over the past 20 to 30 years is likely another reason we’re more prone to weight gain today. For example, the York University researchers point out that Americans are eating more meat now than a few decades ago, and most of it is raised using synthetic hormones and antibiotics, all factors that may influence the makeup of human gut flora.

Tips: There are several ways to give your gut microbes a healthy “makeover.” First, cut back on sugar and highly processed foods. Eat more plant-based foods (fruits, veggies, whole grains, and plant fats like avocado and nuts). And if you eat meat, trade some of your regular fare for seafood and pulses (beans, peas, and lentils), which provide protein, and have been shown to help good gut bacteria flourish. And finally eat more fermented or "probiotic" foods, like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir, to add more friendly microbes to your gut.

Avoid artificial sweeteners

Studies have shown that while fake sweeteners don’t provide calories, they may wind upping triggering weight gain anyway. For example, a new study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found that diet soda drinkers gained almost triple the amount of belly fat over nine years as non-diet soda drinkers, even after controlling for exercise, diabetes, and other factors.

An earlier study from the Washington University School of Medicine may shed light on why: these researchers had obese volunteers without type 2 diabetes consume either water or an artificial sweetener before they consumed glucose (sugar). After downing the artificial sweetener, the subjects’ blood sugars peaked at a higher level than when they drank only H2O, and their insulin levels rose about 20% higher. In other words, artificial sweeteners may affect insulin levels in a way that encourages fat storage.

Tips: Some of my clients quit artificial sweeteners cold turkey, and others wean themselves off gradually. After deciding which approach is best for you, make an action plan. Have replacements at the ready, and be sure to read ingredient lists, as faux sugars may be in foods you aren’t aware of, like cereal. While the first week or so may be tough, I’ve heard over and over from clients that the results are powerful, including a diminished sweet tooth, better awareness of hunger and fullness, and enhanced taste perception, such as enjoying the natural flavor of healthy foods that used to seem blah, like fruit and veggies.

Sleep more

Numerous studies have shown that a lack of sleep drives up appetite, especially for not so healthy foods. In addition, working when your body would prefer to be sleeping has been tied to weight gain. A University of Colorado at Boulder study found that people who work the night shift burn fewer calories during a 24-hour period than those who work a normal schedule. All this is to say that burning the midnight oil makes it easier to gain weight, even without an increase in calories.

Tips: Make sleep as much a priority as clean-eating and exercise. To get started develop good "sleep hygiene." Nix caffeine at least six hours before bed, establish a relaxing bedtime routine, and make your bedroom conducive to sleep—cool, dark, and quiet, with no TV, phone, or laptop. Exposure to natural sunlight during the day, even through a window, has also been shown to help improve nighttime sleep, so if you’re stuck in an inner office all day, take a quick outdoor walk before work, or sit by a window while you eat lunch.

If all of these steps seem like too much at once, work on just one at a time, and stay positive. While simply counting calories alone may no longer be enough to regulate your weight, there are many factors within your control, and focusing on your overall lifestyle will lead to benefits that go far beyond what the scale says.

What’s your take on this topic? Chat with us on Twitter by mentioning @goodhealth and @CynthiaSass.

Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her brand new book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.